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Why So Much Volitility in a Marraige?

QUESTION: After 23 years I feel as if I do not even know my husband. He has become sarcastic and says hurtful things on a regular basis. I try to ignore them because when I say anything he gets very angry. Then everything follows a pattern. First he will say I am an ignorant, whining complainer. He says he should go to town and find a woman who appreciates a good, hard working man. Then he will ignore me for about three days. After that he will be sweet and loving for a while, and then the sarcasm starts up again. He swears that he loves me, but why would he hurt me like this?

ANSWER: Your husband's cycle of sarcasm and later ingratiating behavior is likely to be a pattern that was learned in childhood. Some families develop patterns of regulating closeness and distance by alternating between "blowing up" and "making up." Loss of intimacy and trust is usually the result.

No doubt your husband does feel more loving towards you after he has let off steam. But his threats and sarcasm are driving you away and he needs to find a better way to express his needs and negotiate conflict if he is to remain in the realm of your affection. It is probable that your spouse has needs that are not being met.

Communication between you must become more effective and less alienating if you are to regain trust and tenderness. Without true resolution of your conflict, the likelihood is that hurt feelings will fester and threaten to rupture your marriage.

Most of us feel more capable of being loving when negative resentments have been aired. But in your relationship, the manner of expressing "negative" feelings is damaging and the complaints your husband has about the marriage have no opportunity to be resolved.

Speak up about your own thoughts and feelings, but offer positive suggestions for what you want changed, rather than only complaints about what is wrong. Let him know that you are confused by his alternating sweetness and sarcasm. But do not stop there! Ask him if he understands what it is that bothers you.

Seriously consider the likelihood that there are many issues which have no doubt built up over the years and reflect on whether there have been recent changes in your lives which could be exacerbating the unresolved tensions between you. Have children recently left home? Did you or you husband retire? Are there any other changes in the family that may be increasing daily stresses?

It is also possible that after 23 years, you are the one who is changing. Is this pattern new, or has something changed in your life or the way you are now viewing the relationship?

Marriage is a vessel for nurturing the growth and development of two individuals over time. Changes over the life cycle requires major shifts in the marital container in order to adjust to ever-changing needs and circumstances. Perhaps it is time for you and your husband to review the past, take stock of the present and envision the future.

Your current situation could be an invitation to embark upon a true discovery of who you each are at this point in your life cycle. Invite your husband to reinvent your marriage with you. Do not shy away from getting professional consultation individually, or with your husband if your confusion does not clear. But first, consider your own approach.

Women sometimes fail to empower themselves in their relationships. This can result in a disempowered "whining" about things instead of requiring change! Your husband may be better able to hear you if you make it clear that you are unhappy and that you need some changes in the marriage. But be prepared to offer (and insist on receiving!) positive suggestions, instead of a litany of laments.


Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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